How alcoholism affects pregnancy

Drinking While Pregnant (How Alcohol Affects Pregnancy)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is steadfast in saying this:

There is NO safe time to drink during pregnancy, as there is NO safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.  

Although this is the case, some women remain unfazed by the harsh facts. If you are one of these ladies who still feel the urge to drink even when your belly is burgeoning, then these reminders should teach you to stay away from alcohol – not only for now, but at least for the rest of early motherhood. 


Ever since the 15th century, alcohol has already been recognized as a teratogen – a substance that can cause malformations in the fetus. 

In 2015, the CDC reported that about 1 out of 10 pregnant women drink alcohol. What’s worse, 3.1% of the sample population admitted to binge drinking – which is defined as the intake of 4 or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting. 

Statistics show that alcohol use during pregnancy affects as much as 2.6 million babies annually. This entails medical expenditures of as much as $746 million every year.

Risk Factors Associated with Alcoholism During Pregnancy

Those who drink before their pregnancies have the highest chances of continuing the habit through gestation. Other risk factors include tobacco smoking, homelessness, poverty, and alcohol abuse by the husband/partner. Psychiatric illness and a history of sexual/physical abuse have been attributed to this problem as well. 

The Consequences of Drinking While Pregnant 

Alcoholism goes just beyond the drinker. This toxic liquid can affect your unborn child – and it’s often for the worse. 

Apart from resulting in preterm labor, miscarriages, and stillbirths, drinking has been linked with poor outcomes, such as growth restriction, low birth weight, reduced IQ, and some congenital anomalies.

As such, drinking alcohol is especially harmful during the first three months (trimester) of pregnancy. During this period, there is a huge risk of spontaneous abortion – 4 times higher compared to non-drinkers, according to Bhunaveswar et al

Like other substances, alcohol can reach the baby through the umbilical cord. The fetus is then exposed to the effects of alcohol longer than the mom. That’s because the developing fetus has lower amounts of Alcohol Dehydrogenase, which is necessary for the metabolism of alcohol. 

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder 

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

The worst thing that can happen with alcoholism during pregnancy is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or FASD. Studies show that this syndrome can occur anywhere from 1 in 300 to 1 in 1000 live births. 

First introduced in 1973 by James and Smith, FASD results in physical, intellectual, and behavioral disabilities that persist through the remainder of the child’s life. 

Should there be no miscarriages or other adverse events in the part of the mother, continuous drinking can eventually lead to FASD. Characteristic symptoms include:

  • A markedly smaller head (microcephaly)
  • Flat nasal bridge
  • A smooth philtrum (groove between the mouth and the nose)
  • Thin upper lip
  • Low-set or malformed ears 
  • Flattening of the center of the face

Drinking during the rest of the pregnancy does not do well either, as the baby’s brain is continuously developing throughout the process. Researchers from the Stanford University Medical Center have found out that 1 drink per day is enough to cause FASD. 

Apart from the characteristic physical features mentioned above, FASD may bring about these other symptoms as well: 

  • Sleep or sucking problems in babies 
  • Shorter height and lower body weight
  • Vision or hearing problems 
  • Speech and language problems 
  • Low IQ 
  • Poor concentration and attention deficit
  • Learning disabilities, especially in mathematics 
  • Poor reasoning and judgment 
  • Heart, kidney or bone problems

Although these implications are bad, FASD is completely preventable. The CDC adds that if a woman does not drink alcohol during her pregnancy, there is a ZERO chance that her child will develop FASD. 

Prevention and Treatment of Alcoholism During Pregnancy 

According to experts, the best way to prevent this is to NOT DRINK. It’s easier said than done though, especially in vulnerable groups.

The next best thing, scientists add, is to start at the grassroots – and that is to launch educational or motivational intervention programs in schools. The lack of knowledge regarding the effects of alcohol on the fetus is recognized as one of the reasons why mothers continue to drink – and why they do not seek treatment. By including this in the curriculum, both female (and male students too) get to learn more about the risks of drinking during pregnancy. 

As for treatment, it’s all about targeting the effects of alcohol. Since this substance can bring about oxidative stress during pregnancy, it can have harmful effects on both the mother and the baby. As such, mothers are advised to consume food rich in antioxidants such as Folic Acid, Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and Beta Carotene.

Beyond Pregnancy

Alcoholism should not only be prevented during pregnancy. If possible, alcohol should be avoided throughout motherhood as well. As liquor is transmitted through the umbilical cord, it may be passed through breastmilk as well. Levels remain high for 30 to 60 minutes after the initial consumption of one drink. 

While it is generally safe to breastfeed babies 2 to 3 hours after minimal alcohol intake, it can disrupt the infant’s growth, development, as well as its sleeping patterns. 

As for mothers, alcohol consumption can lower the amount of breastmilk produced. It can potentially be harmful to the child because, as the old saying goes, breastmilk is best for babies. Breastmilk carries with it antibodies that protect the baby from illnesses such as asthma, eczema, and necrotizing enterocolitis, to name a few. 

Economically speaking, mothers who breastfeed get to save as much $1,500 per year, according to a US News report.

Alcohol, in every sense of the word, does not do good. Not only can it make you sick, but it can also put your baby’s life in jeopardy. 

Abstaining from alcohol is indeed difficult, but it can be done. If you are pregnant and still drinking, it’s not too late to stop. The sooner you quit, the better. This is not only for your infant, but for your overall health as well.

Latest posts by Raychel Ria Agramon, BSN, RN, MPM (see all)

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